The Emerald City Theory of Ending Police Brutality

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The Green Lantern Theory of Politics is the naive idea that political actors are not truly constrained by other political actors, but in fact can do anything given sufficient willpower. In recent years it has been used mainly to blame President Obama for not forcing Congress to do a broad range of things, when in fact Congress is an independent and co-equal branch of government that the President does not control.

Most of what is being written and said about what the current presidential candidates should do to stop police brutality toward people of color suffers from a related misunderstanding, which to keep with verdant terminology we can call Emerald City Theory. Emerald City Theory holds that all aspects of U.S. policy are controlled from Washington D.C. In L. Frank Baum’s books, the Emerald City was at the center of the Land of Oz. If you had a problem all you had to do is walk the yellow brick road to this seat of power, which oversaw all aspects of life throughout the realm.

In some policy areas, for example those concerning the economy and health care, there is a great deal of truth in Emerald City Theory. But for others, such as education and criminal justice, Washington simply isn’t where most of the action is in our federated system of government.

In the U.S., state and local law enforcement dwarfs that at the federal level, whether one looks at the number of officers, arrests, trials or courts. The FBI for example employs a third fewer people than New York City’s police department. The federal role in incarceration is also a footnote to the huge presence of state and local government.

To ask what Congress should do to stop police brutality, or what Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush or any other candidate for President will do if elected, is to fall for Emerald City theory. To be sure, residents of the Emerald City can and should acknowledge the pain of the victims, use the bully pulpit to condemn racism, and launch federal investigations where needed. But none of these things will have the impact of even a single large American city’s mayor and police chief deciding to take on the issue.

There is in short no yellow brick road for activists to walk in this case. There are instead hundreds of roads which lead to state capitols, city halls, and county commissions. Like the Wizard of Oz, people in Washington can put on an impressive display but don’t have the power to deliver the changes that the country needs.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Traffik

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I once saluted the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy mini-series as the summit of BBC programming. This week’s film recommendation is in the same league: 1989′s Traffik. Most Americans remember Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning adaptation of this series, but far too few have seen the British original, which at just over 5 hours allows much more character and plot development than could Soderbergh’s fine movie.

Simon Moore’s masterful script anchors what could have been a sprawling, confusing series in the lives of a small number of characters: A UK Home Office drugs minister (Bill Paterson) whose daughter is a heroin addict (Julia Ormond), a dogged German cop (Fritz Müller-Scherz) who relentlessly pursues an ice queen (Lindsay Duncan) who steps into the drug trafficking business when her husband (George Kukura) is indicted, and a desperate Pakistani poppy farmer (Jamal Shah) who finds work with a ruthless drug lord (Talat Hussain). As events buffet the protagonists and their respective story arcs cross, Moore’s narrative skills and Alastair Reid’s deft direction ensure that the viewer is irresistibly drawn in emotionally and able to track the complexities of the plot.

The performances by the actors range from good to amazing. Though it is hard to choose some to single out for praise, Müller-Scherz completely inhabits his role as a working class police detective who seems to hate traffickers as much for their wealth as their drugs. Paterson is marvelous in a tragic role, playing a rigid man who desperately wants to do good at home and at work yet almost always fails in both domains. Lindsay Duncan is also impressive, beginning the film as a woman accustomed to wealth and knowing yet not wanting to know where the money comes from. After her husband’s arrest, Duncan makes credible her character’s transformation into someone even more cold-hearted than he, revealing the greed and entitlement that was lurking in her all along. Her character, along with Talat Hussain’s Pakistani drug lord, are used by the film to portray the drug trade much as socialists tend to see all of capitalist enterprise: A system with a few rich sociopaths on the top and countless marginal people (whether in the drug trade or addicted to its products) scraping by and suffering at the bottom.

The cinematic team behind Traffik took a somewhat subjective approach in their portrayal of drug production and daily life in Pakistan. Home Office minister Jack Lithgow (Paterson), improbably, roams around Pakistan unstaffed, not unlike Macbeth lost in the haunted forest. His encounters with the locals are more emblematic than realistic, including his somehow running into Fazal, the farmer who will be a hub of the story that unfolds. Coupled with dreamlike, sun dappled shots of the countryside by cinematographer Clive Tickner, the whole effect of the Pakistan sequences is akin to watching a surrealist play. Yet it works because Lithgow is on a mission of unreality, trying to stop drug production with a feeble crop substitution program and more generally trying to control a culture that he can barely even understand.

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In contrast, the scenes set in Europe are more gritty and realistic, particularly Ormond’s descent into addiction. The skies are darker, the shadows longer and the cinematic look grimier. And over both the European and Pakistani scenes hangs Tim Souster’s music, a quasi-mystical threnody that accentuates the emotional anguish that the film creates. You won’t get his score out of your head quickly and you will not want to.

Traffik is a powerful, mournful film that doesn’t speechify or offer easy answers about drugs. Both artistically and as an education about its subject, it’s a triumph from start to finish.

Legalized Pot in California: No Gold Rush, No Cash Cow

There’s no way I will associate myself as a parent first, and as a public servant second, with something that is loosely drafted, that is looking to capitalize on the next California Gold Rush.
Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom

Our Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy released our final report today (link here). The report is not an argument for or against legalization but a discussion of what the policy consideration should be if in fact California’s voters choose to legalize recreational marijuana. Gavin’s quote hits one of the key themes of the report, which is that protection of public health is more important than money generation (whether that money is corporate profits or state tax revenues). In America, public health only has a shot against big money if regulations are strong and the oversight process allows public input rather than being a cat’s paw of industry (As Oregon unfortunately has and Ohio might also adopt).

Relatedly, we advocate ongoing policy flexibility rather than a ballot initiative that sets everything in stone up front. The experience of other legalizing states shows that some anticipated problems don’t in fact occur whereas other things go unexpectedly pear-shaped. Because none of us can see the future with complete accuracy, any marijuana regulatory process will have to be dynamic and evolutionary in response.

Young Writers: You May Be Cute, But Not Special

In John Singleton’s powerhouse movie Boyz n the Hood, Laurence Fishburne plays a divorced dad who successfully raises a son largely on his own. He fishes for a compliment about his parenting from his ex-wife, played by Angela Bassett, and she responds that while he’s been a good dad, he has only done what countless mothers have done “since the beginning of time.” Gently but firmly, she compliments him thus: “You may be cute, but not special.”

I think about this exchange often when I read political/cultural commentary by young writers, whether it’s in a book, a student paper or on blogs. Too many essays begin with words along these lines: “No one in this country is talking about X, so let me lay out some hard truths that can no longer be ignored!” And then they go on to offer some shattering observation such as “money is corrupting politics,” “Hollywood movies are sexist,” “Intimate relationships can be difficult,” etc.

One of the things that happens to you as you age and read more is that you realize almost everything that has been said about politics and society has been said before. When I read outlets that cover politics, I can almost imagine the editors giving out assignments to their reporters: “Bill, give me a lion-in-winter-plotting-his-comeback piece on ex- Senator Jones. Sally, I need a rising-young-pol-who-happens-to-be-Black profile on Congressman Green. Dave, how’s that he’s-controversial-but-he’s-a-happy-warrior piece about Governor Harris coming?”

Here’s a humbling experience that every writer should seek. When you think you have something new to say, google the relevant words and see how many other people have already said it, perhaps better than you would.

Does this mean you can’t say something again or in your own way? Of course not. First, every generation needs to work things out for itself. Even if what you are writing is old news to many people, it can be important for you in your own life to figure out important things through your writing, for example how you will handle the tradeoffs between parenting and career or the disappointments inherent in political activism. Second, if you are writing in the service of a cause, repeating what others said make sense because “everything has been said before, but you have to say it again because no one listened.” (It’s too perfect that that quote is attributed to more than one person.) Obviously, the fact that someone wrote about racism last year doesn’t mean the problem is surely resolved by now and need never be discussed again.

However, and it’s a big however, never package your own personal take on the eternal verities as a breakthrough in human development. Never write in a tone that suggests that you are the one, extremely special, unusually sensitive soul in our society who — gosh darn it — still cares. And never imply that your readers should be embarrassed for not having grappled with your unique perspective before (because it ain’t unique and they’ve probably heard it multiple times before).

Fresh voices humbly engaging history’s age-old debates make for good reading. But fresh voices who think history starts with them turn off the very readers they hope to engage.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom…

For as long as I can remember, I have heard anti-government pundits sneer “The federal government can’t even deliver a letter across town!”. I have never understood why this is an applause line, given that delivering letters is something government generally does exceedingly well.

In Britain, many people don’t put return addresses on their letters because their confidence in the Royal Mail is so high. Here’s an endearing demonstration that that confidence is well-placed. Despite the vagueness of the address, the Royal Mail quickly got the letter to the desired recipient.

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Weekend Film Recommendation: Victim

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The 1957 Wolfenden Report kicked off a decade-long debate in Britain over whether consensual sex between men should be illegal. In that era, British police regularly jailed gay men on charges such as “gross indecency” and “homosexual acts”. Men with economic means and status were rarely among the arrested, but they were soft targets for blackmailers. In this environment, it was nothing less than daring to make this week’s film recommendation: 1961′s Victim.

The plot of the film concerns a barrister named Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), so successful in his profession that he has been asked to take silk at the tender age of 40. His life radiates conventional respectability: Cambridge education, comfortable house in an upper-middle class neighborhood, lovely and devoted wife (Sylvia Sims, very strong in a complicated role). But everything comes unraveled when the police inform him that a young gay construction worker named “Boy” Barrett (Peter McEnery) has hanged himself, and has left behind a series of photos and news clippings which suggest that he and Farr had a strong emotional attachment. The police tell Farr that Barrett was being blackmailed, leading Farr on a righteous hunt for the perpetrators. But the risk to everything Farr possesses is enormous, for the blackmailers have a photo that can reveal his sexuality to the world.

Dirk Bogarde, who was gay in real life, personally lifts Victim from good to great. The handsome star was a screen idol of the teeny-bopper set in the 1950s, but with this movie he turned his back on all that to begin a far more artistically remarkable career in offbeat and challenging movies. Even though Janet Green and John McCormick’s script design Farr to be as unthreatening to audiences as possible (He is married, resists his homosexual urges and, like Bogarde himself, stays in the closet), taking the role was a risk to Bogarde’s emerging stardom. And the performance itself, with thick layers of British composure hiding surging rage and sexual desire, hits discerning viewers like a thunderbolt.

vic The script has two other important virtues. The first is its unwinding of the blackmail mystery, which includes a superb bit of misdirection followed by a most intriguing portrayal of the criminals’ motives. Second, the script is sensitive to how different heterosexuals come to a position of tolerance of gay people. A friend of Barrett’s tells him sympathetically “It used to be witches” who were persecuted, and we find out later his sympathy comes more from pity for gays than respect. In contrast, in an understated and moving exchange, Farr’s law clerk tells him simply that he has always respected Farr’s integrity and sees no reason to change his mind upon learn that Farr is gay. Unlike Barrett’s friend, the clerk sees Farr as an equal, indeed even a role model.

Victim is one of many films made after the war by the team of Director Basil Dearden and Producer Michael Relph. The two were recently awarded the distinction of a Criterion Collection boxed set, and there has been an effort by some critics in recent years to say that their talents have been grossly underrated. I recently went on a little binge of watching their films, and I must say that Dearden and Relph strike me as justly underrated filmmakers. I often find myself drumming my fingers because of the leaden pacing of most of their films. I also dislike their occasional lapses into heavy-handed music, speechifying and camerawork and I sometimes suspect that they didn’t have sufficient emotional understanding of the controversial material with which they were often working. Their filmmaking is serviceable, but I suspect a more talented producer-director team could have made every one of their movies better.

It is thus not surprising to me to have read that it was Bogarde who demanded the key scene of the Victim, in which he speaks passionately of his desire for another man (a mainstream movie first) and explains so movingly to his wife the emotional vice that his closeted life places on him. Bogarde personally gives psychic weight to Victim that was lacking in, for example, Sapphire, a less successful Relph-Dearden effort to make a social message film (That one was about race — not bad really — but just not in the same league as Victim).

Given the talent of a remarkable lead actor and a strong script, even a middling producer-director team can make a classic movie, and that is what we have in Victim. It succeeds both as social message and as art, and also may have contributed to the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain in 1967.

p.s. Kudos as well to another gay actor — Dennis Price — for taking the risk to play another prominent victim of the blackmailers.

To Save Westminster

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The glorious Palace of Westminister, home of the British Parliament, is falling apart (remarkable photos here) and simultaneously sinking into the underlying clay-rich earth. An independent report places the cost of repairs at £3.5 Billion. Presuming the planning fallacy holds, the actual costs will be even higher (for example, one wonders if the cost estimate considers the likelihood that digging under the foundation will uncover historical/architectural treasures that have to be preserved).

Matthew Flinders is not interested in restoring the building for the government’s use:

The Palace of Westminster should be a museum, not the institutional heart of British politics.

… it is dark and dank. It is as if it has been designed to be off-putting and impenetrable. It is ‘Hogwarts on Thames’ which is great if you have been brought up in an elite public school environment but bad if you did not. It has that smell – you know the one I mean – the smell of private privilege, of a very male environment, of money and assumptions of ‘class’. It is not ‘fit for purpose’ and everyone knows it.

Flinders sees an opportunity to redesign politics along with creating a new, differently designed building to house those who practice it:

if we really want to breathe new life into British democracy then the dilapidation of the Palace of Westminster offers huge opportunities. The 2015 General Election is therefore something of a distraction from the more basic issue of how we design for democracy in the twenty-first century. Less MPs but with more resources? Less shouting and more listening? A chamber that can actually seat all of its members? Why not base Parliament outside of London and in one of the new ‘Northern powerhouses’ (Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle, but definitely not Leeds) that politicians seem suddenly so keen on?…let’s be very un-British in our approach, let’s design for democracy – Let’s do it! Let’s rip it up and start again!

I agree with Flinders that physical spaces shape our behavior, our emotions and how we treat each other. Indeed, that is precisely why I do not want Parliament moved to some antiseptic modern office building in Sheffield. The Palace of Westminster and the spot on which its predecessor structures stood are sacred democratic ground. This is where a land ruled through Divine Right of Monarchs evolved to become one of the world’s leading democratic societies. The building itself does not belong to the politicians inside it but to the British people, and it should therefore be a beautiful, awe-inspiring place worthy of their greatness. And I want their elected officials to walk by the statues, the windows, the crypts and the carvings that convey the weight of history and with it the current generation’s comparatively small role in it (As President Obama says “We just try to get our paragraph right”). To wipe out that history will lead politicians to think that history starts with them, and that’s a perilous concept for democracy.

Pub Quiz: Three of a Kind

Here is what I hope you will find a pleasant waste of your time: A pub quiz based around the theme of three of a kind. Google not and do your best. Answers after the jump. Please post scores and any comments/critiques at the end. Good luck.

1. Name Donald Duck’s 3 Nephews.

2. Name 3 of the 5 Marx Brothers of vaudeville and Hollywood fame.

3. Name 3 of the 5 oldest universities in the United States.

4. Name 3 of the Brady kids on the television show “The Brady Bunch”.

5. George Washington’s face is on the $1 bill and Abraham Lincoln’s is on the $5 bill. Name three other presidents whose faces appear on U.S. paper currency.

6. In Catholic theology, the four cardinal virtues are prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. What are the three heavenly graces?

7. In the popular children’s poem “Dutch lullaby”, who were the three sailors in a wooden shoe?

8. What U.S. state’s three most populous cities all begin with the letter “C” ?

9. Name 3 of the 5 countries that export the most oil to the United States.

10. Names three First Ladies of the United States from the first half of the 20th century.

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Weekend Film Recommendation: The Special Relationship

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Screenwriter Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen ventured into the life and career of British Prime Minister Tony Blair three times, with tremendous success. The Queen is by far the best known of these films, but this week I recommend the conclusion of the trilogy: 2010′s The Special Relationship.

The film begins with a wet-behind-the-ears Tony Blair (Sheen) being briefed on how Bill Clinton’s (Dennis Quaid) third way brought Democrats back to power in the U.S. Fast forward to Blair’s own resounding 1997 victory, and a congratulatory phone call from the POTUS he so admires (Blair hanging up on Jacques Chirac to take the call is one of the movie’s many funny and satisfying moments). Soon the Blairs arrives in Washington for an in person meeting. Tony is star struck, but his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) is more skeptical of the slick Arkansan. Cherie does however admire the steel of the First Lady (Hope Davis), even while wondering why she puts up with Bill’s skirt chasing. The relationship between the world leaders develops further, with an initial triumph in Belfast followed by the Lewinsky scandal, which reverses the dynamic between a now-weakened President and a rising, more confident Prime Minister. They then cross swords over Bosnia, with profound consequences for their relationship as well as for the lessons Blair will take forward in his dealings with the next U.S. President.

If you are a political junkie and/or an Anglophile, this is compulsively watchable stuff. The events are recent enough to be well recalled by the audience, but the insider perspective of the movie enlivens those happenings rather than boring us with what we already know. The film is also professionally made from stem to stern. Stephen Frears did not sign on for the third installment of the series, but he was succeeded by another worthy of British directing, Richard Loncraine, so the series does not skip a beat in that department. Even the actors in the smaller parts make a strong impression.

In an age when intelligent dialogue is disappearing from film, Morgan’s screenplay is an oasis in the desert. Although some of the exchanges between the characters are imagined, sufficient research went into the script that everything feels plausible. The script is craftily constructed to reveal character structurally: Cherie and Tony pad around their kitchen minding their kids and digging through the laundry for lost shirts, but Bill and Hillary are generally shown as the power couple who are thoroughgoing politicians even when the news cameras are not rolling. The script gives the Clintons no real domestic life (Chelsea never appears). Even their private moments brim with impression management and campaign messaging, most painfully when Bill lies to Hillary about his relationship with Lewinsky and then, guilt-wracked, watches her on television as she gamely denies everything on his behalf.

Last but definitely not least, the film provides a plausible explanation for why Blair befriended his ideological opposite, George W. Bush, and went on to immerse his country in two wildly unpopular wars. The Bosnian success that resulted from a mix of good intentions and grandiose Churchillian aspirations was apparently easy to overgeneralize. The script also hints in its excellent closing scenes that Blair’s personal desire to be a player on the world stage ultimately overcame whatever policy goals he had at the beginning of his career (Indeed, the film questions whether those goals were even genuinely valued before his election).

THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP This film recalls Sinclair Lewis’ observation that men can seem completely different on the surface while being exactly the same underneath, whereas women who seem the same on the surface can be completely different underneath. As Cherie and Hillary, the lead actresses are utterly credible, and they peel their characters like onions, progressively revealing new layers. McCrory and Davis deserve plaudits for giving full-blooded performances rather than merely impersonating their real-life counterparts.

At this point in his career, Sheen could have played Blair in his sleep. But he doesn’t sleep, turning in another strong performance as the British Prime Minister. As President Clinton, a heavily made-up Dennis Quaid easily surpasses John Travolta’s half-baked impression in Primary Colors (another film with a terrific portrayal of Hillary, that time by Emma Thompson). But of the four leads, his performance is somewhat less compelling for reasons that are hard to put one’s finger on. Perhaps Bill Clinton is simply a hard part to play for anyone other than Bill Clinton.

The Special Relationship did not receive quite as strong reviews as did the first two entries in the trilogy (The Queen and The Deal), perhaps because some critics felt it was a case of too many trips to the same well. But if like me you find real politics more engaging than the goings on of the royal family, you will enjoy The Special Relationship as a meatier film than The Queen. The movie brings home the apocryphal Foreign Office quip that the two most important things in the world are love and Anglo-American relations.

Dementia and Criminal Responsibility

A remarkable legal case unfolding in the U.K. raises intriguing legal and ethical questions about dementia and the assignment of guilt. A Labour party grandee, Lord Greville Janner, will be tried for pedophilia. Nine men have come forward with allegations that Janner sexually abused them when they were children.

The assaults were alleged to have occurred 30-50 years ago. Janner, now 86-years old, was diagnosed with dementia 6 years ago and has been judged incompetent to participate in his own defense. The court will thus take the unusual step of holding a “trial of the facts” in which evidence is heard and conclusions about its credibility drawn, but no declaration of criminal guilt will be made and no criminal sentence can be given.

There is ferocious debate underway about whether Janner’s high position in the Establishment led to a cover up at the time the abuse was occurring, and also over whether it violates human rights to try a person for terrible crimes when they cannot defend themselves. Those are very much debates worth having, but my own mind keeps dwelling on a different point.

My friend and fellow RBC blogger Mark Kleiman makes a case against extremely long criminal sentences (e.g., 30 years of incarceration for murder) by arguing that when enough time has gone by, the person who is behind bars is no longer really the same person who committed the crime. If one can make that case in general, I would think it would apply even more to someone who is demented. That is, even assuming that it is known in advance that someone who is now demented committed a crime while they still retained their faculties, is it fair to punish them if a disease has erased much or all of their personality, memories and identity?

I took care of patients with dementia when I worked in hospice, and watched grieving relatives (spouses and adult children) slowly come to terms with the fact that while their loved one’s heart was still beating and lungs still functioning, the person they knew and loved was gone. The person who was a good spouse or parent was not really there to thank, the person who was a poor spouse or parent was not really there to blame.

I would think courts would have to come to terms with these realities too. It wouldn’t mean that whatever the accused did wrong in their life was morally acceptable, rather that the perpetrator is no longer with us and therefore beyond the reach of punishment.

p.s. Some commentators have asserted that Janner’s dementia is faked, pointing to a 1991 fake (and egregiously mishandled) case involving convicted fraudster Ernest Saunders. Given that Saunders was 56 at the time and Janner is 86 (i.e., risk of dementia over 200 times higher), and that neurological scanning technology has come a long way in the past quarter century, and that Janner has been examined by 4 medical experts and Saunders was diagnosed by one, that’s a facile comparison. But in any case, it’s not relevant to my ethical question: If someone truly is demented, should we still punish them for what they did when they were intact?